By Caryn Maconi | March 07, 2014, 12:30 a.m. (ET)
Tatyana McFadden
Tatyana McFadden started cross-country skiing in 2013.

Tatyana McFadden
Tatyana McFadden is one of the top-ranked wheelchair racers in the world. She also cross-country skis.

Tatyana McFadden is a part of many communities.

She’s an athlete, an adoptee, a proud Girl Scout.

A member of Team USA.

McFadden was born with spina bifida, a condition that caused her to be paralyzed below the waist. She spent her early years in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia, but at age 6, she was adopted by Deborah McFadden and started a new life in Clarksville, Md.

An avid athlete throughout her youth, McFadden went on to become a 10-time Paralympic medalist in wheelchair racing and winner of seven major marathons, including four straight in 2013. Now she is representing Team USA in cross-country skiing for her first-ever Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Her uplifting story makes her a fitting role model for many, and she embraces that role as she reaches out to her community to share her experiences. But more than speeches and autograph sessions, McFadden gives back to the specific programs and people who have made her who she is today.

She has invested countless hours and donated many of her winnings back to University of Illinois Wheelchair Athletics, the program that made it possible for her to compete in wheelchair basketball and track while earning her college degree.

“I had my sights set and my dreams about going to the U of I since middle school because I knew that was a program where the best athletes excelled,” McFadden said. “So when I found out I was going to go there, I was beyond excited that I could be a part of something extraordinary. They’ve given me so much to get me to where I am today, not only as a person but as an athlete, and so giving back to the program is very important to me.”

The university was recently named a U.S. Paralympic Training Site, and McFadden hopes her contributions will build on that momentum.

“The U of I has everything an athlete needs – the best coaching in the whole world with Adam Bleakney, all of the adaptive equipment for disabled athletes, and opportunities to be a part of a team and train with other Paralympians,” McFadden said. “For people who are looking for places to train but don’t know where they can go, the University of Illinois can provide that. I just want to make the program bigger and even better, and I think that will bring more Paralympians out and grow Paralympic sport.”

McFadden’s advocacy isn’t limited to adaptive sports and disability culture. As someone whose life was shaped by adoption, she is also a spokesperson for the adoption community. She speaks to adoptive parents, but what she enjoys most is connecting with and mentoring other children who are adoptees.

“I can relate to what kids are going through – the emotions, you know, it’s hard,” McFadden said. “I think it’s important to talk to kids about adoption, open up questions and tell my story.”

McFadden works with children at the Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE), which is based in Burtonsville, Md. She has also volunteered at day camps for adoptees, helping them to confidently ask questions and voice concerns about the process.

“It’s very cool to see kids open up,” McFadden said. “And it’s a lot of fun hearing the different stories, helping these kids go through what they’re feeling about adoption.”

McFadden won’t forget one other community that shaped her and continues to do so today:  the Girl Scouts of America. She joined the Scouts almost immediately after moving to the U.S., and now she is a Girl Scout for Life.

“What I really liked about Girl Scout camps as someone with a disability is that the Girl Scouts never treated me any differently,” McFadden said. “It was a great way to be a part of something at such a young age before I really got involved with sports. It was one of the first communities I got involved with, and I think it’s a great way to give back.”

These days, McFadden speaks to Girl Scout troops around the country encouraging girls to get involved in sports, be committed to a cause, and overcome challenges they may be facing.

“It’s one way I can get involved without sports and without any focus on my disability,” McFadden said. “I talk to young girls about giving back to the community and really helping out with something you believe in.”

The Girl Scouts still embrace McFadden, too.  In the lead-up to Sochi, she received more than 400 letters from troops offering luck, encouragement and gratitude for her leadership in the Girl Scout movement.

Whether it’s the values she gained through Girl Scouts, the family she found through adoption, or the athletic identity she discovered through adaptive sports, McFadden is sure to never forget her roots.

“l have been given so much,” McFadden said. “You know, the Girl Scouts have given me a huge and different opportunity, the University of Illinois has gotten me to where I am today, and adoption is part of my life. All of those communities have helped me to become who I am today, so it’s really important to give back. You never know whose life you’re going to be touching. It could be one or 100.”

If McFadden’s inspiring nature is any indication, that number is already much more than 100. 

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